Ex parte Merryman

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Ex parte Merryman, 17 F. Cas. 144 (1861), is a well-known U.S. federal court case which arose out of the American Civil War. It was a test of the authority of the President to suspend "the privilege of the writ of habeas corpus". Chief Justice Roger Taney, sitting as a Federal Circuit Court judge, ruled that the President could not suspend, but President Lincoln ignored the ruling, as did the Army under Lincoln's orders.

Contents

Background

When a person is detained by police or other authority, a writ of habeas corpus, issued by a court, compels the detaining authority either to show proper cause for detaining the person (as by filing criminal charges) or to release the person at once.

Article I, Section 9 of the United States Constitution includes this clause:

Circumstances

In April 1861, actual fighting in the Civil War began. President Lincoln called for the states to provide militia troops to the Federal government to suppress the rebellion. Some of these troops traveled to Washington via Baltimore, Maryland. Pro-Confederate mobs attacked some of these troops on April 19. It seemed possible that these pro-Confederates would seize control of Maryland, cutting off Washington from the rest of the Union. Mayor Brown of Baltimore and Governor Hicks of Maryland asked that no more troops cross Maryland, but Lincoln refused.[1] However, for the next few weeks, troops were brought to Washington via Annapolis, avoiding Baltimore. Also on April 19, Lincoln asked Attorney General Edward Bates, for an opinion on the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus.

The threat to Washington was serious, and Lincoln eventually responded by declaring martial law in Maryland. On April 27, 1861, he told General Winfield Scott (commander-in-chief of the army) that if there was any resistance on the "military line" from Annapolis to Washington, Scott or "the officer in command at the point" was authorized to suspend habeas corpus if necessary. Within a few days, it was found necessary. The suspension was not announced, and was in fact carefully kept secret at first.[citation needed]

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